Philosophy with Onbester

The Default: Rebuttals Not Retractions

Over the past several days academics on social media have been discussing in increasingly agitated language the publication of “The Case for Colonialism,” by Portland State University associate professor of political science Bruce Gilley, in the academic journal, Third World Quarterly.

There is now a petition with over 6,000 supporters (as of the time of writing this post) calling for the editorial team to retract the article, for the editors who approved it to apologize for “further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism,” and for the editors to be replaced.

Ignoring McNulty’s wisdom—this particular dispute belongs to political science, not philosophy—I’d like to share some thoughts on this. After all, what is going on now isn’t all that different from a recent episode in our discipline, and it provides an opportunity to put some thoughts out there should we face such a situation again.

Here are the introductory paragraphs of Gilley’s article, which I post to give you a sense of what it’s about (there is an ungated version of the piece here):

For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. Colonialism has virtually disappeared from international affairs, and there is no easier way to discredit a political idea or opponent than to raise the cry of ‘colonialism’. When South African opposition politician Helen Zille tweeted in 2017 that Singapore’s success was in part attributable to its ability to ‘build on valuable aspects of colonial heritage’, she was vilified by the press, disciplined by her party, and put under investigation by the country’s human rights commission.

It is high time to reevaluate this pejorative meaning. The notion that colonialism is always and everywhere a bad thing needs to be rethought in light of the grave human toll of a century of anti-colonial regimes and policies. The case for Western colonialism is about rethinking the past as well as improving the future. It involves reaffirming the primacy of human lives, universal values, and shared responsibilities—the civilising mission without scare quotes—that led to improvements in living conditions for most Third World peoples during most episodes of Western colonialism. It also involves learning how to unlock those benefits again. Western and non-Western countries should reclaim the colonial toolkit and language as part of their commitment to effective governance and international order.

There are three ways to reclaim colonialism. One is for governments and peoples in developing countries to replicate as far as possible the colonial governance of their pasts—as successful countries like Singapore, Belize and Botswana did. The ‘good governance’ agenda, which contains too many assumptions about the self-governing capacity of poor countries, should be replaced with the ‘colonial governance’ agenda. A second way is to recolonise some areas. Western countries should be encouraged to hold power in specific governance areas (public finances, say, or criminal justice) in order to jump-start enduring reforms in weak states. Rather than speak in euphemisms about ‘shared sovereignty’ or ‘neo-trusteeship’, such actions should be called ‘colonialism’ because it would embrace rather than evade the historical record. Thirdly, in some instances it may be possible to build new Western colonies from scratch.

Colonialism can return (either as a governance style or as an extension of Western authority) only with the consent of the colonised. Yet now that the nationalist generation that forced sudden decolonisation on hapless populations has passed away, the time may be ripe. Sèbe has documented how the founding figures of Western colonialism in Africa (such as Livingstone in Zambia, Lugard in Nigeria and de Brazza in Congo) are enjoying a resurgence of official and social respect in those countries now that romanticised pre-colonial and disappointing postcolonial approaches to governance have lost their sheen. As one young man on the streets of Kinshasa asked Van Reybrouck (as described in his seminal 2010 book on the Congo): ‘How long is this independence of ours going to last anyway? When are the Belgians coming back?’

The petition says, among other things:

The article lacks empirical evidence, contains historical inaccuracies, and includes spiteful fallacies. There is also an utter lack of rigor or engaging with existing scholarship on the issue.

Some of my thoughts on this matter (none of which are about, or constitute a defense of, Gilley’s thesis):

  1. Apart from the above-quoted paragraphs, I have not read the article. This, I suspect, puts me in the same company as most of the signatories of the petition calling for its retraction. If you have not read the article, and you are an academic, you probably should not call for its retraction. There’s room for exceptions here, I suppose: if you’ve heard detailed testimony from a trustworthy/fair source who did read the article, then maybe that is good enough. But the petition’s language itself provides no such detail, and the means by which I believe most people are hearing about this article—in Tweets and Facebook updates—are not typically conducive to providing such detail. Calling for an article’s retraction is rather serious, and the decision to do that should be taken seriously, which typically means reading the article.
  2. In deciding whether to call for an academic article’s retraction, it would be useful to know whether the article was accepted for publication following a usually sound peer review process or through some alternative process (one that perhaps is more permissive of work that does not meet disciplinary norms). As far as I know, we do not have an answer to this question. (I recently wrote to the editor and the journal manager asking about this but have not yet heard back.) If an article you find highly objectionable did make it through the peer review process, it could be a fluke, it could point to systematic problems at the journal in their choice of reviewers, or it could be evidence that you (and those who are most vocal) are mistaken about the beliefs and norms that are in fact operative in your discipline (we ought not mistake loudness for prevalence).
  3. In deciding whether to call for an academic article’s retraction, it is useful to know whether that is a permissible option, given the reasons for the proposed retraction and the policies of the journal and the publisher, and any applicable norms governing academic publication (such as COPE).
  4. In conducting our academic work we should try as much as possible to rely on the exchange of evidence and arguments, not (directly) on the numbers of people who agree with us, or the strength of their agreement. Let’s suppose the article was peer-reviewed but that the strongest complaints about Gilley’s article are correct: it lacks empirical evidence, its account of the facts is inaccurate or misleadingly incomplete, it contains errors in reasoning that seem motivated by animosity, and it does not engage with the relevant literature. How should those academics in a position to know these things respond? Is it by saying something tweetable that will convince lots of non-experts to help them try to erase the article from history? That seems to be making use of inappropriate means towards an undesirable end. The history of academia is a history of mistakes—and learning from them. If Gilley’s article is full of mistakes, then the job of the experts is to point this out and help us learn from them, so people are less likely to make them again.
  5. Let’s stop overstating the harms (e.g., “brutalizing,” “violence”) that an academic article can cause. Such overstatement increases the likelihood that legitimate complaints about real problems and harms an article might cause will be dismissed as hyperbole. Part of human progress has been an increased awareness of the variety of ways in which people can harm each other. We don’t aid in that progress by taking an unfamiliar and perhaps difficult-to-explain harm and pretending it is just some obvious severe harm people already recognize.
  6. I’m not naive about the nefarious uses to which even a poor quality academic article—and the negative attention it receives—can be used by interest groups to advance their agendas. I know it is harder for reply articles to be noticed and have an impact. And I’m not ignorant of the research on how, in some contexts, pointing out others’ mistakes reinforces them. But these are just going to be problems that we occasionally have to address or endure in order to preserve academia as a domain for the flourishing of expertise, where it is protected from the pernicious pressures of popularity. No arrangement is perfect; it’s a matter of picking which problems we can stand living with. I don’t want a version of academia in which, in the contest of ideas, when expertise bumps up against popularity, the latter is more likely to win. We should be hesitant to take part in activities that push us in that direction.

None of this is to say that calls for retractions are never in order. They certainly are in some cases of academic and editorial misconduct. Whether the publication of Gilley’s article involves such misconduct I do not know: I haven’t read it, I’m not an expert in the field, and I haven’t heard back yet from the editors.

But it is to say that our default reaction to cases like this should not be “retract!” but rather, “rebut!”

UPDATE 1 (9/14/17): Farhana Sultana, associate professor of geography at Syracuse, includes information about the editorial review process the paper underwent in a public Facebook post calling for the paper’s retraction:

I have been recently informed it did actually undergo the standard peer review process common in academic journals and was rejected, but was then published as-is as a Viewpoint by the journal; however, such items are still meant to be read and approved by members of the journal’s Board, which consists of several illustrious scholars in this particular journal; I understand that board members were not aware of the piece until its publication.

UPDATE 2 (9/14/17): This essay, “A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism Is Bad,” by Nathan J. Robinson (Harvard) at Current Affairs, is worth reading. Robinson lays out some of the problems with Gilley’s article. For example:

In his presentation of colonialism’s record, Gilley has deliberately excluded mention of every single atrocity committed by a colonial power. Instead of evaluating the colonial record empirically, he has distorted that record, concealing evidence of gross crimes against humanity. The result is not only unscholarly, but is morally tantamount to Holocaust denial.

Robinson also suggests that Gilley’s article is a trap:

This article does not read as if it is attempting to be taken seriously. Its tone toward critics of colonialism is polemical and mocking… Gilley must intend to provoke people to rage… I expect Gilley wants the following to happen: people will be outraged. They will call for the article to be retracted. Then, Gilley will complain of censorship, and argue that lefties don’t care about the facts, and that his points has been proved by the fact that they’d rather try to have his article purged than have to refute its claims. This is a dynamic that has occurred many, many times. 

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